Our most fundamental right is in jeopardy

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

The day I cast my first vote, admittedly for losing candidates, I walked a little taller because I was certain that day I had become an adult.  To this day, my family may have to miss spending Thanksgiving together, but we always get together in person or, now, virtually, on Election Day. Simply put, for me, there is just no constitutional right more important than the right to vote. Without it, our Constitution is not worth the paper it is printed on.

That’s why I’m so excited to have been invited to hear Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Tuesday night at the LBJ Auditorium in Austin. The late president’s family will be there to hear General Holder talk about the importance of voting rights and Lyndon Johnson’s heroic leadership in getting the law enacted.

The Attorney General is expected to reiterate the importance of respecting and ensuring the voting rights of all Americans. In Texas, this means, fighting back against those who would shrink our democracy by restricting the right to vote.

We await a decision from the Department of Justice about the legality of Texas’ new Voter ID law under the Voting Rights Act. I trust that the justice department sees clearly the motives of those who would deny large groups of Texans their right to vote.  It would be funny if it weren’t so awful: our state ranks among the lowest (45th in 2008) in the nation in voter turnout. We ought to be thinking of ways to promote and ensure the right to vote; instead we are shamefully making it more difficult for people to exercise their constitutional right.  As I told the Texas Senate in January, this law is a solution in search of a problem. There is NO evidence of in-person voter fraud in Texas.

Our new Voter ID law, like efforts in at least six other states, is designed to keep people of color and those in lower income groups away from the polls.  Here’s why: it would require a registered voter who previously only had to present her voter registration card to now show a Texas drivers’ license, a Texas state ID card, a concealed handgun carry license, a U.S. military card or a U.S. passport.  Unable to show any of these, she may cast a provisional ballot, which will only be counted if she comes forward with the required ID within 6 days. (Small comfort, as our state has one of the lowest rates of cleared provisional ballots in the country. About eighty percent were rejected in 2008.)

If this law is allowed to stand, our state will have serious problems.  An expert on census and voting reviewed three demographic studies and concluded that hundreds of thousands of minority voters do not have the required identification. Nor will it be easy for them to get the IDs required to vote. Almost half of Texas’ 254 counties have drivers’ license offices with reduced hours or no motor vehicle office at all.

A person who lives in, let’s say, the Big Bend area of Texas where her county has no motor vehicles office, faces potentially insurmountable hurdles. First, she has to have a birth certificate ($22) or a marriage license ($71) if there has been a name change or a passport ($110) to get the state-issued ID.  Then, there is the cost of the trip to the drivers’ license office; in the case of the Big Bend resident, it’s about an hour and half to the nearest office in Alpine.  With gas prices so high, she could spend up to $85 for the roundtrip. And remember, our potential voter doesn’t drive: she has to find a friend or relative who does have a drivers’ license. And then there are the costs of lost wages. It’s like that advertisement says: The Cost of the Right to Vote in Texas? priceless.

Under this law Texans — particularly those who are elderly or have disabilities or are students or are voters of color or are low-income — will have their cherished constitutional right to vote restricted. That’s wrong, and we hope Attorney General Holder will put a stop to it.

Click on our voting rights action alert, and urge the Department of Justice to exercise its authority under the Voting Rights act and block this suppression measure.

Voter ID: Texas Didn’t Get it Right, but we Hope the DOJ Will

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

“You need an ID to be able to check out a book at the library.  Why shouldn’t you need one at the polls?”  We heard this argument in support of the new Voter ID bill over and over again at the Capitol during the last legislative session.  The answer, of course, is that the right to vote is constitutionally protected, whereas library privileges are not.  That’s why a library can charge a fee for a library card, but even the most stringent supporter of the Voter ID bill would cringe at the idea of a poll tax.

We argued long and hard against passing the new voter ID bill in Texas, but unfortunately the anti-immigrant haze that covered the Capitol during the last legislative session clouded fair and smart decision-making to ensure the integrity of the vote. The new law, which will require a state-approved picture ID for all people voting in person, is supposed to go into effect on January 1, 2012.  Because Texas has a history of voter disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act requires the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that any new voting law does not discriminate against minorities.

The DOJ is waiting on the state of Texas to provide the racial breakdown and counties of residence of the estimated 605,500 registered voters who do not have a state-issued license or ID. They are also asking how many voters have Spanish surnames.  Apparently, the Texas Secretary of State’s office will provide the information but Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the agency said it will be significantly skewed and won’t be very reliable.  One reason for this is because the category “Hispanic” wasn’t included until 2009.  Rebecca Acuna, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said that the limited data that the state has already furnished shows that Hispanic voters would be disproportionately disenfranchised.

The ACLU of Texas was against this bill from the beginning, as it will clearly discourage or downright prevent many eligible voters from voting.   ID cards are not easy for all Texans to access – there are 34 Texas counties without a DPS office and 46 additional counties where DPS offices have been temporarily closed. In West Texas that means some people may have to travel hundreds of miles to obtain the proper ID to vote.  This is unacceptable, especially when the bill was based on a problem – voter fraud at the polls – that simply doesn’t exist in Texas.  We hope that the DOJ will come to the right conclusion – that the voter ID law in Texas is discriminatory and will disenfranchise voters who are legally entitled to vote.  Stay tuned!

The Good and the Bad from the 82nd Legislature

Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

We aren’t going to lie, there was a lot of ugly in the 82nd Legislature, yet we are proud to report that the ACLU of Texas achieved some incredible successes despite the contentious atmosphere of the proceedings.  Many of the bills we supported passed, and we were successful in stopping many bills that would have been bad for Texas.

We worked with business leaders, civil liberties organizations, law enforcement, and religious leaders to stop various anti-immigrant proposals.  These proposals would have encouraged racial profiling and undermined public safety.  Although numerous proposals were offered, and we were backed into a corner when the so-called “Sanctuary Cities” bill was added to the Special Legislative Session, no anti-immigrant bill successfully passed.  Phew!

In addition to holding off the anti-immigrant charge at the Legislature, our other major successes came in the area of decriminalizing school discipline. Current policies and laws that require ticketing students for minor disciplinary infractions at school push youth into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, interrupting or altogether halting their education.  Futures have been ruined by these policies, and with more youth in jail – and out of a job – these policies certainly have not benefited the economy.   Additionally, criminal justice responses to minors’ misbehavior are more costly and less effective than other methods of encouraging good behavior at school. Here is an overview of our decriminalizing school discipline successes:

  • The Corporal Punishment, Ticketing, and Use of Force Bill (HB 359) addresses three separate school discipline issues.  First, it grants parents the power to determine if their children can be subjected to corporal punishment at school.  Second, it exempts children in sixth grade and under from being charged with three separate Class C misdemeanors for engaging in childish misbehavior on school property.  Third, it ensures that school peace officers report their use of restraints on special education students. 
  • The Truancy Bill (SB 1489) aims to reduce the number of youth and adults sent into juvenile and adult criminal justice systems for truancy.  In 2009 alone there were approximately 120,000 Class C misdemeanor charges filed against Texas students for failure to attend school, a 40 percent increase since 2005.
  • The Record Sealing Bill (HB 961) will better allow youth and young adults to move past childhood mistakes by lowering the age at which individuals may have juvenile records sealed and/or restricted.
  • The Anti-Bullying Bill (HB 1942) requires school district policies to include a procedure for reporting, investigating, and responding to instances of bullying on their campuses.   

Along with the passage of these good school discipline bills, two important criminal justice reforms passed this session. 

  • The Asset Forfeiture Bill (SB 316) reforms the way that asset forfeiture laws can be used.  In the past, asset forfeiture laws were sometimes misused by law enforcement to intimidate individuals (disproportionately African Americans) into relinquishing personal property in an effort to avoid being put in jail. 
  • The Anti-SLAPP Bill (HB 2973) allows for safeguards against frivolous lawsuits targeting individuals with the purpose of quelling the individual’s free speech rights. 

These wins will make a difference in the lives of many Texans, and we are proud to have had such a successful session. But, while we were able to successfully advocate for these bills and stop all of the anti-immigrant proposals, a few bad bills still passed:

  • The Voter ID Bill (SB 14) requires proof of identification at polling places, which creates more roadblocks to voting despite the already very low voter turnout rate in Texas. Voters must already show proof of identification to register to vote. A second show of ID isn’t necessary and there’s no evidence of voter fraud in Texas.
  • The Sonogram Bill (HB 15) intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship and forces a woman to go through an invasive sonogram procedure prior to undergoing an abortion.  
  • The Sexting Bill (SB 407), well-meaning but poorly crafted legislation that creates a new crime for youth that send naked images to friends or classmates, a practice that more than 20 percent of youth engage in nationwide.  There are better non-criminal ways to address this widespread youthful indiscretion without having to place children before a judge.

Between working to undo these unwise new laws and keeping the momentum going on the school discipline successes, we don’t have much time to rest. There is still a lot to do to protect the civil liberties of all Texans.  We assure you we aren’t going anywhere and will keep on fighting for your rights!  To follow the work we do, find us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!  And remember, to show your support for the work we do, please vote for us as “Best Activist Organization” in the Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin contest.

A (Traffic) Ticket to Debtor’s Prison

drpRead our letter (PDF) to the Texas Department of Public Safety regarding the DRP.

The Driver’s Responsibility Program (DRP) established by the legislature in 2003 was designed, in part, to fund trauma care. Under this program, fees (in addition to fines) imposed for driving-related offenses are supposed to go to trauma centers, emergency medical centers and the state’s general revenue fund. Instead, the DRP has become a virtual debtor’s prison. Two-thirds of all fees remain uncollected because, for example, many traffic offenders can’t work since their driver’s licenses were suspended for failure to pay. In other cases, fees are simply too costly for low income Texans to pay.

The DRP causes unlicensed and uninsured drivers, while a huge percentage of the trauma care dollars remain uncollected.

The system isn’t supposed to work this way
It is time for reform that makes it possible for even indigent traffic offenders to pay their fees and fines and keep their licenses so they can continue to work and pay their fees and fines, assuming their offenses are not serious enough for suspension of driver’s licenses. Public transportation is an option in some cities but in much of small town and rural Texas, driving to work is a necessity for employment.

A waiver for indigence (scheduled for next year) should be implemented immediately. The ongoing recession has contributed to loss of jobs all the while diminishing and exhausting some drivers’ already greatly reduced ability to pay. They are caught in a hopeless situation. To keep people employed so they can pay their fines, the program should offer greater reduction in fees scaled to income as well as payment plans.

Traffic tickets shouldn’t lead to debtor’s prison.